In a world without work, being busy will be the new status symbol: Don Pittis


The orthodox view of economists has been that work is what poor human being do. The richer we got, individually and as a society, the more we would revel in taking nevertheless off.

Two new studies on work and leisure have turned that conventional solvent wisdom on its head.

Most devastating was research released on Friday by Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton and Princeton economist Anne Happening that shows “deaths of despair” are soaring amongst unemployed ashen men in the United States.

Mortality and male despair

Titled Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century, the scrutinization shows that while most middle-aged people around the fabulous are living longer, the death rate for white men without a high public school education is sky-rocketing.

“The number of “deaths of despair”— death by drugs, the bottle and suicide” and a “slowdown in progress against mortality from heart condition and cancer, the two largest killers in middle age” are to blame, says a Brookings Origination précis of the new research.

Injection drugs

A discarded needle in Vancouver. There are ‘deaths of discouragement’ everywhere but new research shows that among the hardest hit are white American men without post-secondary tuition. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Their statistics show the rising death measure is related directly to education levels, but the causes, whether unemployment, extinction of status or lack of access to health care, are more complex and harder to chaff out.

“Not only are educational differences in mortality among whites increasing, but mortality is upland for those without, and falling for those with, a college degree,” asseverates the summary of the report, which is available in full here.

While unemployment imagines fall, especially in the United States but also in Canada, critics from repeatedly pointed out that those stats disguise a large contingent of what economists collect “discouraged workers,” who have given up and stopped looking for a job.

Others slope into a category sometimes called “underemployed.” They have sufficient hours to take them off the unemployment roles but not enough to keep them engross.

“We have people without jobs, and we have jobs without child,” said Craig Alexander, chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, in prepayment of last week’s federal budget. That is a problem Finance Clergyman Bill Morneau says he’s seeking to rectify.

The changing status of opportunity

In his groundbreaking book The Theory of the Leisure Class, 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen described a just ecstatic where time to do nothing represented the pinnacle of economic status. 

His concept of “gaudy leisure” was portrayed in the Gilded Age novels of Edith Wharton where lukewarm New York aristocrats struggle, conspicuously, to fill their time with games and visits and freightage rides that strengthen their place in the social pecking association.


It used to be that the idle rich used ‘conspicuous leisure’ to bear out their status. Now the world’s richest and highest status people are constantly Rococo running charities and businesses. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

By the 1930s, economist and celebrated servant John Maynard Keynes described the world of leisure spreading across the community classes in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, where he foresaw that helpfulness was destined for a 15-hour work week.

Keynes presciently describes “unemployment due to our exploration of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new capitalize ons for labour.”

Like Veblen, Keynes saw a time, roughly by 2030, when people of all stocks would want to be part of a growing leisure class.

As it turns out, novelist Kurt Vonnegut sketched what may be a more accurate picture in his 1952 fresh Player Piano where the only people truly busy were influentially educated technocrats and bureaucrats, an elite of the type scorned by the supporters of Donald Trump.

Conspicuously hard-working

With Vonnegutian irony, the job of one part in the novel is to create machinery to do other people’s jobs. He invents a car to do his own job and is promptly sent to join the masses of marginally employed citizens in overstaffed make-work overwhelms filling potholes.

Vonnegut’s message, of course, is being freed from commission may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

That’s exactly the point of the second piece of research released final week by social scientists at Harvard and Columbia universities. Unlike the era tell ofed by Veblen, the authors show that in the modern world the highest significance is attached to those who are the most frantically busy.

“We uncovered an alternative category of conspicuous consumption that operated by shifting the focus from the preciousness and insufficiency of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals,” Science Daily quoted the designers as saying.

To an economist, the idea is not so far fetched. Things of value are things in insufficient briefly supply. In Veblen’s era, people had to work long hours or starve, so when convenient was the signature of wealth. Now status comes with being useful and in coveted.

Kathryn Arseneau, parent, children

New research suggests that unlike in the Gilded Age, being super active and in demand is now a status symbol. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

One solution to the arrival of the androids is to take the economic surplus created by machines and distribute it amongst the at leisure as a basic income. But that may not be enough. As automation begins to take away our consigns, it is the feeling of usefulness, of being socially valued, that is in short sell. 

Perhaps that is why in the Brookings study it is men who suffer the most from purposelessness and surrender. As the aphorism goes, a woman’s work is never done, even when it is owing.

It may turn conventional economics on its head, but once your basic requirements are fulfilled, when it comes to status and feeling good about yourself, perhaps work really is its own reward.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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